Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
The Reporter, Vestal 

Anti-Semitic or not?

 


The recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League has been making headlines in the Jewish and non-Jewish media. Some articles see the research as flawed, and one rabbi, Jay Michaelson, claims that according to the survey, he, too, could be considered anti-Semitic. Michaelson’s column is a bit disingenuous, since at times he deliberately twists the questions, but he does make a good point: Why does agreeing with these statements, which could be taken neutrally, equal anti-Semitism? The answer seems clear in one way: Many are the same canards used to convict Jews of organizing an international conspiracy to run the world. Yet, Michaelson does correctly note that Jews are also guilty of making generalizations about themselves, although the resulting comments are usually positive.

My first thought after reading about the survey was of the anti-Semitism I’ve experienced in my life. The main incident took place in high school and fortunately was limited to some anti-Semitic statements by a few fellow members of the National Honor Society. I can’t remember what they said, but do know I told one person something along the lines of, “If I want to say something bad about you, I don’t have to talk about your religion.” My closest friend in junior high and high school, who was not Jewish, actually had it much worse. After we graduated, she mentioned the negative comments people made to her about being friends with me based on the fact I was Jewish. That some people didn’t like me was not a surprise. I have a strong personality and that doesn’t appeal to everyone. However, why should that have translated into the idea that my behavior was based on my being Jewish? Making an assumption that all Jews have a particular kind of behavior is as racist as saying all Italians (I went to school with lots of them) or all African Americans (there were only a few in my class, and not many more Jews) are alike.

From a sociological viewpoint, though, the fact that we generalize about people and phenomenon makes sense. Life was so complex, particularly for early humans, that we needed to made generalizations in order to survive. If eating a plant with red flowers causes someone to get sick and die, then the rest of us would do well to avoid plants with red flowers. If an animal is easy to trap, we should look for others like it. And a group of strangers, even if they look like us, most likely signal danger: Better to assume they are a problem, if only because they will compete with us for limited resources.

Although times have changed, the human mind has not. In fact, in our very complex computerized world, it may make sense to jump to conclusions. Take, for example, our use of the Internet. It’s estimated that there are more than 3.5 billion websites. How can we possibly look at them all? We make decisions about which ones to view in a variety of ways, but most of our choices are not based on reasoning and careful thought. Our local cable company offers more than 200 channels. Even if we went without sleep, it would be impossible to watch all the shows, so we make semi-random decisions. As for the TV news, people use politics to decide which pundit offers the greatest wisdom.

The one problem I have with the ADL survey is that it measures attitudes, not behavior. Feelings do not always result in actions. Yes, the two are greatly connected, but I really don’t care what someone thinks of me or my fellow Jews as long as they don’t discriminate or use violence against us. Now, the world would be a far better place without benign antisemitism, racism, sexism, ageism and a variety of other “isms,” but that perfect world will never exist. One good result of the survey, though, is the ADL’s acknowledgment of the need for continuing education. However, we must also recognize that prejudice will never be completely uprooted. And while we’re on the subject, perhaps we should also look into our own hearts to make certain we’re not guilty of the same crime.

 

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